‘Terrorised before they even started’: England’s plan for Smith is no plan at all

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Watching from an adjacent net in Australia in November 2013, James Anderson winced as England’s batters wore blow after blow from Tymal Mills hurling balls at them from 16 yards.

Ostensibly meant to prepare them for Mitchell Johnson’s thunderbolts, Anderson recalls that the “preparation” devised by team management created dread as much as readiness, something of which Johnson took full advantage.

Steve Smith has frustrated the plans of James Anderson for years.Credit: AP

A decade on, Anderson and England’s bowlers face their own challenge in reducing the output of Steve Smith, who averages 65.08 in England with six centuries. After dominating the 2019 series, Smith has remodelled his game since the 2021-22 bout, in search of freer scoring.

For Anderson, captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum, one of numerous epiphanies of the “Bazball” era has been that England need to spend less time on planning and more on being agile to battle with opponents in the middle. Twenty years into his international career and approaching the age of 41, Anderson has learnt some new tricks.

To that end, Smith and other Australian danger players such as Marnus Labuschagne, Usman Khawaja and Travis Head will be subject to some planning, but nowhere near as much as in the past. In the past 12 months, Anderson has plucked a staggering 45 wickets at 17.62, striking every seven overs.

“I never really like singling anyone out, but he’s had a lot of success against us in recent times,” Anderson told this masthead of Smith. “Maybe in the past we’ve actually gone overboard in thinking of ways to get people out.

“I’ll never forget the series in 2013-14 when Mitchell Johnson had a great time. Before that, we were so worried about him that we got Tymal Mills, the left-arm quick, and a few other guys to bowl at us in the nets off 16 yards, and the lads were terrorised before they even started the series. I think if you look too deeply into stuff like that it can affect you in a bad way.”

Over-analysis, or focus on the wrong things, can cause as many problems as it may solve. In the 1990s, England set themselves up for failure against Shane Warne in one series by watching copious footage of the great leg spinner knocking other teams over, rather than looking at the players who handled him well.

“Yeah exactly, it probably made it worse!” Anderson laughed. “What we’ve done brilliantly in the last 12 months is thinking about what we do well. That’s worked particularly well for the batters not worrying about who’s bowling at them, and just really concentrating on their strengths and the areas they can score in.

“It’s the same for the bowlers, I think. There might be the odd fielding position here and there, but generally we’ll focus on us and getting 20 wickets in the game. It’s dangerous to look too much at one player when you come up against a batting line-up like the Australians.

“Of course we’ll look at each batter and each bowler will have a general plan, but also what we’ve done really well over the last year or so is try to think on our feet and think slightly out of the box when we’re actually in the game. Then go with what the game scenario suggests, what the wicket suggests.”

James Anderson and Stuart Broad with their captain Ben Stokes.Credit: Getty

Anderson is adamant that no matter what surfaces are prepared – England have hinted at wanting good batting tracks to aid fast scoring – the Dukes ball and northern conditions will always keep him in the game.

He is close to shrugging off a groin strain, and is back bowling and running at what he calls “good levels and not feeling anything”. But he does not expect any pace bowler to get through all five Ashes Tests, save for quirks of weather or low team totals that reduce the workloads for himself and others such as Australia’s captain Pat Cummins.

“I think it would be foolish for any bowler to think they can get through all five,” Anderson said. “If you look at previous series, neither side has gone through with the same unchanged bowling line-up.

“Australia have done it very well in the past, rotating their quicks. Even now Pat’s captain, with Steve Smith being able to take over the captaincy, I think he’ll still look after his body as much as possible.

“I’m trying to be realistic. I can’t imagine I get through all five Tests if they are as gruelling as I know Ashes cricket can be. But I’ll prepare for the first Test and whatever happens after that happens, and hopefully I can play a big part.”

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